With his term expiring at the end of the semester, Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong has two months left to execute a campaign promise to get gender-neutral housing in campus residence halls.
Armstrong and others involved in the campaign for open housing listened and responded to Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student affairs, during a round table discussion yesterday in the MSA Chambers. Harper told the group of about 20 University students and staff members that the administration is working toward implementing a policy that would enable openly transgender students to have roommates of their identified gender.
But Armstrong expressed his dissatisfaction with Harper’s announcement, calling the University’s decision “a departure” from “the comprehensive gender-neutral housing policy the Open Housing Initiative requested. The initiative is a student-drafted proposal that seeks to implement gender-neutral housing at the University.
The University’s policy is being drafted by the University’s Spectrum Center, an office devoted to LGBTQ awareness and advocacy on campus, and will likely take effect next year, Harper said.
In an interview after the meeting, Harper said current University policy allows for openly transgender students to live in single rooms. Under the new policy, however, transgender students will also have the option of sharing a suite with consenting students of their identified gender, Harper said. While these students will still have their own rooms, they’ll be able to share the suite — which would have a communal bathroom — with suitemates of their preferred gender.
At the meeting, Harper said the University decided to move forward with the policy because it wants to provide the best environment possible for all students, including those who identify themselves as transgender.
“The intent is that if you are (transgender), we want to make sure you have a safe, healthy…experience,” Harper said.
In an interview after the meeting, Armstrong said though the University’s decision wasn’t what he hoped for, it was a step in the right direction.
“It’s definitely progress, but obviously it’s not necessarily what the Open Housing Initiative initially envisioned,” he said. “But I’m certainly happy … with the change that has happened.”
Echoing Armstrong, MSA Rep. Allison Horky, a co-leader of the Spectrum Center Student Advisory Board and co-founder of the Open Housing Initiative, said she was pleased with the opportunities the policy will open up for transgender students.
“The change tonight is very important because it directly affects transgender students,” Horky said.
Armstrong said he plans to continue advocating for the Open Housing Initiative throughout the remainder of his term.
“We’re still going to be working on this issue,” Armstrong said.
In response to Armstrong’s sentiments, Harper and Jackie Simpson, director of the Spectrum Center, said the University has a long way to go before it can comfortably enact a gender-neutral housing policy. Simpson brought up worries about female safety as one possible hindrance to enacting a gender-neutral housing policy.
“For some, it’s the fear of safety for women that raises concerns about people of the opposite gender living in the same space,” Simpson said.
Harper added that more discussion must take place between different groups at the University before it can move forward with a gender-neutral housing plan.
“I think it is going to take a lot of education,” Harper said. “I just think we have a lot of work to do.”
Simpson said in an interview after the meeting that the office is working to draft the new policy within the next two weeks. She said she’s excited to play a part in allowing transgender students to live in a suites with people of their identified gender.
“We want to make sure we have a campus climate that is conducive to making those students feel comfortable,” Simpson said.
According to Simpson, the policy will likely take effect for incoming freshmen starting in the fall.
Interviewed after the meeting, Housing spokesman Peter Logan said he thinks that from a University housing standpoint, the policy will be easy to implement.
“They’ll work out something that’s very doable,” Logan said. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”
In a press release issued after the meeting, members of the University’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that the organization is standing behind the Open Housing Initiative and its commitment to a more extensive gender-neutral housing policy.
“We are enthusiastic about the progressive policy change announced at the meeting tonight, but we believe there must be a continued push for an Open Housing option that is available to all University of Michigan students,” LSA junior Ellen Steele, a University ACLU member, wrote in the press release.